SEATTLE – When Nick Rolovich was hired as Washington State University’s football coach in January 2020, I wrote a favorable column saying he had a great chance to succeed through the sheer force of his personality. My working theory was that it took a quirky person – like Mike Leach – to draw attention to the program in an isolated place like Pullman.
“In Nick Rolovich, Leach’s newly hired replacement, WSU athletic director Pat Chun appears to have unearthed someone with the potential to stand out from the crowd,” I wrote.
I never dreamed how prophetic those words would be.
Rolovich’s COVID-19 vaccination stance has drawn a laser focus on Pullman and his program, but it’s hardly the spotlight the university wants or needs. And it certainly is not enhancing Rolovich’s ability to succeed as WSU’s coach as he heads into his second year.
In fact, quite the opposite.
The clock is ticking on Rolovich, and a massive showdown appears to be brewing. It’s a situation that continues to bring embarrassment to WSU, and it’s getting harder to envision this having a smooth ending.
When Rolovich announced in July that he wouldn’t attend Pac-12 media day because he was not vaccinated, it sparked a lot of outrage and condemnation, including mine. But Chun and the big boss, WSU president Kirk Schulz, had no recourse to compel Rolovich to get the shot. The university’s vaccine mandate allowed exceptions for medical, religious and personal reasons. All Schulz could do was reiterate the university’s strong advocacy of vaccinations.
Even when Gov. Jay Inslee announced in early August that all state workers must be vaccinated, Rolovich still had a loophole: It didn’t apply to employees in higher education. So when the Cougars’ preseason practice began, there was Rolovich leading the workouts – masked, socially distanced and still unvaccinated.
That loophole seemingly disappeared this week when Inslee issued a new statewide mandate that now included employees in education, with the requirement they be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment.
Furthermore, the exemption for personal reasons was eliminated. The only possible exemptions are now for valid medical or religious reasons. Unlike many other states with vaccine mandates, Washington’s does not allow for employees who do not qualify for medical or religious exemptions to submit to frequent testing rather than get vaccinated.
So now Rolovich seems to have a rather stark choice: Get the vaccine by Oct. 18, the deadline given by the governor for full compliance, or face losing his job seven games into the Cougars’ 12-game season.
When Rolovich told reporters Thursday that he would comply with the governor’s mandate, the initial interpretation was that it meant he would get the vaccine. But Rolovich has never said that. Indeed, he has pointedly avoided making that declaration by repeating the phrase, “I will follow the mandate,” in a manner many have likened to Marshawn Lynch’s repeated uttering, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
During Friday’s media availability in Pullman, Rolovich was asked directly if he was getting the vaccine.
“I appreciate it, but I’m going to follow the mandate,” he replied, and then used that phrase a couple of more times to deflect questions.
So now it has become a game of semantics. Given another opportunity to administer a modicum of transparency, Rolovich again whiffed. As the highest-paid state employee – $3.2 million per year – Rolovich is in a position of high visibility and focus, whether he likes it or not. And at a time of COVID resurgence, many people are looking for Rolovich to set an example in leadership that he continues to abdicate.
Still, that used to be excused as a matter of personal choice, and the choice of how much the university could tolerate a stance that was antithetical to its own. You could gripe and fume all you want, but Rolovich had the “personal reasons” proviso to cling to. It was right there in the official university policy, like it or not.
Now that avenue is gone. At this point, I’ll state the obvious: If Rolovich has a valid medical condition that precludes him from getting the vaccine, then I will apologize and take back all the criticism. But he has had ample opportunity for weeks to let that be known (without going into personal details that are no one’s business). A simply worded announcement would have ended the whole debate in its tracks and taken away a month and counting of unwanted scrutiny of the Cougar football program. That has not happened, however, so we are left to parse the meaning of what exactly “following the mandate” entails.
I still hope Rolovich will surprise us by getting the vaccine. He has less than two months to come to that conclusion. But his repeated refusal to say he will receive the shot leaves open the possibility that Rolovich will hold firm to his no-vaccine stance and seek to invoke some interpretation of the mandate that gets him out of it. Or force a response from his bosses, which would be the showdown I alluded to at the beginning.
That, in turn, would put the onus squarely on Chun and Schulz. At some point not too far in the future, they might well have to decide whether they can abide their highest-profile coach flaunting the rules that they require all their students and staff to abide by.
It’s not a pleasant situation entering a new season. I have heard from many Cougar alums who are infuriated with Rolovich to the point of hoping he is fired, or that WSU loses all its games just to get him out of there. To be fair, I have heard from others (not nearly as many) who support his stance. Not surprising, it has devolved into a political debate as much as a medical one.
No program wants an emotional and highly charged rift like that dividing its fan base, but that’s where WSU finds itself. Rolovich is standing out from the crowd, all right. Be careful what you wish for.
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